Paul Pelosi and the Right's Problem with Conspiracy Theories
Until mainstream news outlets stop accepting bogus premises built on the false belief that "both sides" are equally likely to spout conspiracy theories, this won't stop.
Last week, a judge ordered the release of the police bodycam footage from the October 28, 2022, attack on Paul Pelosi, the husband of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
If, for some reason, you don’t remember the story, here’s a quick summary: a man named David DePape broke into the Pelosis’ home through a glass panel door, took Paul Pelosi hostage, and told him he needed to talk to “Nancy” (who, unbeknownst to DePape, was across the country in Washington, D.C.). Pelosi was able to dial 9-1-1, and when the police arrived, DePape swung a hammer at Pelosi’s head, fracturing the 82-year-old businessman’s skull.
Hey, real quick: Please subscribe to the newsletter, which is entirely reader-supported. Thanks!
Regardless of one’s politics, it’s easy to acknowledge that this was a horrific act committed by a man obsessed with far-right conspiracy theories
As you may remember, right-wing politicians and commentators responded to the attack with a steady stream of conspiracy theories.
A lot of these were framed in a very… “Hey, I’m just askin’ questions!?” kind of way. For instance, a few days after the attack, Sean Hannity tried to cast doubt on the story by highlighting that Pelosi “never let on, apparently, that he was in any distress at all whatsoever just seconds before, you know, he opens the door and he says -- instead of telling the police officers to come in and help, I got this guy in here with a hammer, apparently, Pelosi calmly greeted the police at the door, no signs of injuries that they mentioned, retreated several feet back, went back into the foyer and that's where police actually witnessed this -- this guy, this nut, this illegal immigrant guy strike him with the hammer.”
And here’s where the “just askin’ questions!?” aspect of it comes in.
You know, and by the way, I've never doubted his story for a second -- but if somebody breaks into your house and you call the police and the police show up, is your reaction gonna be, you know, nonchalant and walk back into the hallway and not have any sense of urgency? Or are you gonna run out and say, this guy's trying to kill me, go get him, and run out of the house and let the professionals do their job? Especially if you don't -- if you don't believe in self defense.
So, that's very strange. That does not seem like the normal reaction one would have. I'm glad the guy is okay, meaning Paul Pelosi, but this story is strange. That is not a normal reaction when somebody is being attacked by a stranger in their own home that has a hammer. So, I think we need to get to the bottom of that.
Is it “strange” that Pelosi tried to sound calm when on the phone with 9-1-1, avoided directly stating he was in distress, and then answered the door in a calm and casual way? Well, look, I’m no expert on what someone should do if they’re ever taken hostage, but Googling “what to do if I’m taken hostage” brings back a whole bunch of results saying that the correct way to handle this is to do exactly what Paul Pelosi did in this situation.
“But it’s weird that he was calm on the phone…”
No, it’s not.
“And isn’t it strange that he answered the door for police in a calm way…”
No, it’s not strange. At all.
The Sean Hannity types in the world know all of this, but they also know that there’s really no downside to stoking conspiracy theories. It’s what his audience wants. It’s what his audience expects. So long as there isn’t a price to pay in terms of credibility or audience reach, there won’t be an incentive to hold back. We live in a world where you can say “Hey! Donald Trump won the 2020 election, the COVID vaccines are dangerous, and ah hell, maybe COVID isn’t even a real thing!” and the worst that will happen to you is that CNN and NPR will put out fluff pieces about how you’re “having a moment.” #GirlPower!
Hannity isn’t confused; he’s a professional liar. Republicans in Congress aren’t confused; they’re professional liars. The point is that when people whose support you need to keep your job ask you to sign off on crazy ideas, you can either go along with them and keep their support, or you can stand up for yourself and get replaced by a more compliant cog in the machine. For instance, far-right politician (seriously, look at her voting record) Liz Cheney took a stand against bogus “rigged election” conspiracy theories, and that was enough for the Republican party to turn on her.
Conspiracy theories about the attack on Paul Pelosi became just another one of the talking points that the armchair Alex Joneses who shape modern right-wing politics have decided are not only fine to have but are actually beneficial positions to hold. So you end up with people just throwing things out there. (Aaron Blake at The Washington Post has a breakdown of some of the right-wing conspiracy theories around the attack on Pelosi, ranging from the bizarre suggestions maybe Pelosi and DePape were secretly gay lovers to the sort of ah-ha! I see that years ago he used to be kind of a lefty hippie type! For more on the many conspiracy theories that popped up on the right, check out these pieces by Matt Gertz over at Media Matters.)
The bodycam footage should put those conspiracy theories to rest, but it absolutely won’t.
Soon after the footage was released, CNN’s Oliver Darcy shared a hopeful sentiment, tweeting, “This video is hard to watch, but should pour cold water all over those right-wing conspiracy theories that were pushed about the attack.”
His tweet is not wrong; he did say “should.” The sad truth is that, yes, it should pour cold water on those conspiracies, but it won’t. In fact, releasing the footage seems to have generated additional conspiracy theories. Media Matters’ Madeline Peltz caught some screenshots of the conspiracy nonsense that was popping up immediately following the footage’s release.
Most of these reactions (“I don’t claim to be an expert on dealing with home invasions, but I am pretty sure you don’t take your pants off and make a cocktail,” “Why did Paul Pelosi calmly answer the door with a drink in his hand?”) intentionally omit the context that Pelosi likely wasn’t wearing pants because he was sleeping when DePape broke into his house and likely ended up with a drink in his hand in the process of trying to create an opportunity to call 9-1-1 (he was able to convince DePape to let him use the bathroom, during which he was able to dial the police and keep an open line).
The entire purpose of this isn’t to “get to the bottom of” anything; it’s to create confusion (and content). None of this is new, obviously. Conspiracy theories have been used to gain wealth and power for likely as long as the concepts of wealth and power have existed. It’s good to “question the narrative,” but that has to be with reason. Anyone going, “Hrm… why is Paul Pelosi in his undies!? Seems kinda gay!” is not being a “critical thinker,” but a propagandist.
Conspiracy-mongering is big business. Take, for example, the fact that right-wing media outlet The Gateway Pundit has misidentified shooters and terrorists in the immediate aftermath of attacks so many times that its Wikipedia page has a dedicated “Misidentifying shooters and terrorists” section. There are two types of people these conspiracy theory-riddled stories target: those who simply want to hear something they already believe fed back to them like it’s news and those who see conspiracies as opportunities to advance their own politics (or to blunt damage to their own political point of view, as the pre-emptive “Look! It was a liberal who did [horrific act]!” stuff with absolutely nothing to back it up at the time (sometimes it does end up being true that a criminal agreed with some different ideology or whatever, but that doesn’t change the fact that places like Gateway Pundit are making their claims based on nothing of substance) that’s always been popular on the far-right.
And this isn’t to say that liberals, progressives, leftists, etc., are somehow immune to hopium. There will always be people who overstate and oversell narratives for political or financial gain, and there will always be audiences for that. Lots of people really wanted to believe that Robert Mueller was going to perp-walk Donald Trump out of the White House. Selling people on the idea that such a belief was correct and that consequences for “ol Donny Trump” were right around the corner was its own kind of business.
People want to feel correct, and they want their “correctness” reinforced by others. Usually, that’s fine. Usually, that’s just called taste, and it’s how we seek out and consume entertainment, gravitating to things we enjoy and away from things we don’t. However… apply that to something like journalism, and it no longer becomes about “taste,” but about hearing someone parrot their own worldview back to them. Think COVID-19 is secretly a bioweapon? Don’t worry, there’s a new outlet that will tell you this is a totally normal view to have. Think Donald Trump won the 2020 election? There are “news” outlets willing to tell you that. You get the idea.
The media industry understands the need to sell the news as a product. That has helped create the chaotic information ecosystem that thrives on conspiracy theories.
Originally, I was going to write something here about Neil Postman and Aldous Huxley, but after seeing The Atlantic put out a piece on Post'man’s legacy (among other things) today, I decided to save that for when I’ve got more time and energy to devote to the topic. (In the meantime, if you want to read my thoughts on the news-as-entertainment industry, this piece from a few years back still holds up.)
But let’s look at how people react when they’re given news they don’t like. Newsmax and One America News both experienced some boosts leading up to the 2020 election, billing themselves as being more conservative than Fox News. It coincided with some on the right accusing Fox of being “liberal” (which was always a completely bonkers thing to say) for so much as hinting that it wasn’t a good look for Trump to try to extort Ukraine into running a sham investigation into Joe Biden’s family. This created a bit of an opportunity for Newsmax and OAN.
raging lunatic cartoonist Gen Garrison had to say in 2019:
But when the group you’re pandering to wants to hear nothing other than things they already believe, you’re going to inevitably run into trouble.
On December 15, 2020, right-wing TV outlet Newsmax tweeted, “Biden reportedly wins through electoral college, Trump still fighting the results.” This linked to an article on the Newsmax website titled, “Biden Wins Electoral College.”
How do you think Newsmax’s Twitter followers responded to this? (Keep in mind that this was five weeks after the election had already been called by other news outlets and after every single state had certified its votes.) I’ll tell you.
You get the idea. I was kind of blown away by just how universal this “I’m done with you” sentiment seemed to be on that post. Newsmax waited as long as possible to even suggest that Biden would be sworn in as president on January 20 and still got blowback online over it. And, again, I must stress, Newsmax is extremely far right.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial